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Missteps erode trust in bishops

Sat., March 11, 2006, midnight

Whatever trust the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops had restored with their response to clergy sex abuse has been badly eroded in recent weeks by a combination of missteps and outside criticism, including allegations that Spokane Bishop William Skylstad sexually abused a girl 40 years ago.

Any of the latest developments would be disturbing, but taken together, critics see the church as floundering with the same problems that engulfed it four years ago.

Though Skylstad this week strongly denied the accusations made public against him, problems are mounting for the bishops. Consider the troubling signs:

“ The Massachusetts attorney general now says the Archdiocese of Boston, where the abuse crisis erupted, has failed to implement key reforms it had promised, including tracking guilty priests and teaching adolescents and teens to protect themselves from predators.

“ In a 2005 deposition unsealed last month, Bishop Joseph Imesch of Joliet, Ill., said he felt no obligation to go to police in the 1970s when a priest on trial for molestation told Imesch he was guilty. The bishop said he has reported abuse claims to civil authorities in the last few years, but when pressed by a plaintiff’s lawyer to cite examples, he could not.

“ In Chicago, Cardinal Francis George, a leader in shaping the bishops’ reforms and the vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, admitted he failed to act soon enough in the case of the Rev. Daniel McCormack, charged with molesting three boys since 2001. The archdiocese did not remove McCormack from his parish until four months after he was accused.

“ This week’s disclosure of the allegations against Skylstad, who is also president of the bishops’ conference, came only after The Spokesman-Review confirmed the existence of a claim filed two months ago. The claim had been kept secret along with dozens of other sex abuse allegations against Eastern Washington Catholic clergy. Skylstad retains his leadership posts.

“It’s a sign that nobody’s in charge,” said Illinois Justice Anne Burke, former chairwoman of the National Review Board, the lay watchdog panel the bishops created at their 2002 Dallas meeting, where they adopted a toughened child protection plan.

“Everybody left Dallas and for the last four years verbalized their desire to make some changes, but probably never really put them in place. Because they haven’t done what they said they would do, it’s my conclusion that they never intended to,” she said.

On Friday, Voice of the Faithful, a lay reform group created at the height of the abuse crisis, called for an independent investigation of Skylstad and George. The group urged them to temporarily step down. Only the Vatican can discipline bishops.

Defenders of the bishops say a small number of the nation’s 195 dioceses are having problems, and it would be wrong to tar every American prelate with a few isolated cases. Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, spokesman for the bishops’ conference, pointed to audits the prelates had commissioned that found nearly all of the dioceses had implemented the reforms.

Yet, some outsiders have concluded the church cannot police itself.

After a lull in state legislative activity sparked by the molestation scandal, lawmakers in Maryland, Ohio, Colorado and Delaware are considering proposals that would extend statutes of limitation on civil lawsuits in child sex abuse cases. The bills would also eliminate time limits for a year or two to allow all alleged victims to seek compensation — a move similar to one in California that opened the door for hundreds of new molestation claims.

The Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit and expert on the American church, said it would be unrealistic to expect dioceses could do the right thing in every case, since even the criminal justice system, with its vast investigative resources, makes mistakes that leave the public vulnerable.

However, even if the bishops have no trouble from now on, Reese contends many within and outside the church would never again trust them, since only one — Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston — has taken personal responsibility for sheltering abusers by resigning from his diocese.

“The bishops applied ‘zero-tolerance’ to priests and not to themselves,” Reese said.

“That’s the source of the credibility problem.”

Staff writer John Stucke contributed to this report.

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